Christmas. A time for peace, joy and goodwill to all. Frosted breath plumes, comforters snake about collars, greetings and laughter fill the air. A myriad of a thousand tiny lights add sparkle to a tree beneath whose branches beautifully-wrapped gifts await new owners.
At this time of year, we’re bombarded with vision after vision of what a perfect Christmas should look like. It’s all firelit ochre tones, people laughing gaily, families coming together in a blaze of harmony, perfect presents under perfect trees, high romance and not a raised voice to be heard.
In a perfect Christmas, perfect things happen. It snows in big, fluffy flakes and everyone is tremendously happy about it. Families smile and laugh with each other in a big happy love-bubble. Boyfriends propose with diamond rings submerged in glasses of champagne. The turkey exits the oven bronzed with those little chef hat things on the end of each of its legs. Monopoly is played without a single disagreement over how much rent is owed on Mayfair.
All is calm. All is bright. All is perfect.
Except, Christmas isn’t perfect. Not for anyone. Christmases can be wonderful, but they can never be without missteps, because life cannot happen without missteps. And Christmas may be a bit of an unreal bubble, but it’s life all the same.
In a real Christmas, it doesn’t snow. It either rains endlessly or it tries to. People have rows or someone gets drunk or someone says the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person and offence is taken. Boyfriends don’t always propose with rings in champagne glasses, they often just buy their girlfriend a jumper in the wrong size (but always seem to somehow get the lingerie right). The turkey exits the oven overdone and who has time for the little chef hat things anyway? And it’s almost written into law that in a game of Monopoly, someone will flip the table, hurl their property cards at someone else before stalking out of the room shouting, “I hate this game!”
For many folk, there are eggshells to be walked upon, minefields masquerading as conversations to be navigated and hormones and drama and upset lurking at every turn.
Christmas is not perfection. It is more likely to be three days in which the unstoppable force of fantasy meets the immovable object of reality in a collision that is apt to spew emotional wreckage well into 2018.
Christmas is a fantasy from the moment we are able to recognise a big fat man in a red suit as a benign stranger who breaks into our houses every 24th of December and leaves a bunch of presents we asked for.
As it progresses into adulthood, this fantasy transitions into something else. The fantasy of perfection. In our twenties it’s about a perfect social environment or relationship. In our thirties and forties, it may be about creating a perfect Christmas for the small people in our lives who still see the magic (and commercial opportunity) of the season. And in our fifties and sixties and beyond, it’s about enjoying the perfection of a wider family unit that we belong to and have helped to grow.
And at some point on that journey, we understand that the pursuit of perfect is for nought. We realise it doesn’t exist. And the next stop can be disappointment, anger and resentment.
Humans are notorious for this. We create monuments to hope, only to see them levelled by the stampede of reality that crushes everything in its path. Yet there is no greater faith than wounded faith, and so we doggedly repeat the mistakes of our past by layering expectation upon expectation in the future.
Often, as we move through the normality of the year, this can be manageable. We spread the disappointment at our unrealised dreams across time, making them less obvious and less invasive. The fortnight in the Bahamas that becomes ten days in a seaside cottage in Norfolk becomes more bearable because we see it through the prism of a life that is more identifiably greater.
But Christmas has a hard stop. It’s the end of Boxing Day, certainly the chime of midnight on New Year’s Eve, and we’ve been conditioned through advertising and TV and movies to believe that everything is going to be perfect. And so we board the train of delusion and steam ahead, knowing deep down that derailment lies only days ahead.
The negative impact of unfulfilled fantasy is that it can lead to depression and stress and anxiety in ways that, if unchecked, can fester into something more. It doesn’t take much for a family row to boil over into a feud. Relationships can become strained. Self-esteem, that fragile thing, can shatter.
So, this Christmas, try to be kind to yourself whatever your situation. Accept that life isn’t perfect, and that imperfection is one of the challenges and joys of a life fully experienced. Recognise anger and resentment for what it is, because acceptance gives you control. If you have the choice to interpret something positively, do that, because in the alternative lies misery, if you need to take a breather, take a breather. A mantra I live by when things get heated is ‘before you do something, do nothing’. Revel in the things that go right and be sanguine about those that don’t.
And know that if it does all become too much, we’re here to catch you when you fall.
Merry Christmas. You’ve earned it.